ROME — Following a fall season of major studio releases that have failed or substantially underperformed at the Italian box office, Italy’s national market share for U.S. pics has dropped by a staggering 20% from the same period last season, raising questions about release patterns and promotional heft.

Admissions for U.S. films during the current season, which began in September and runs through June, numbered 9.5 million as of Friday, representing a drop of 3.5 million on the mid-November total from last year.

The stellar bow of Polygram’s “Bean,” which was released Friday through Warner Bros. and took $2.7 million in its first three days, makes it one of only three films this season — all of them European productions — to gross more than $2 million in their opening weekends. The others were “The Fifth Element,” from France, and local monster hit “Fireworks.”

As a result of these hits, the market share for Italian films now has jumped to 34%, its highest peak in recent years, while French films have shot from 1.7% to 7%, and Brit pics look certain to climb with the success of “Bean” and the release of “The Full Monty” early in 1998.

In the key situations charted by B.O. monitoring service Cinetel, the top U.S. performers this season have been “The Lost World: Jurassic Park” and “Men in Black,” grossing $8.3 million and $6.9 million respectively. This is a far cry from last fall’s “Independence Day,” which earned $15.8 million at the current exchange rate.

So why the decline? A quick glance would seem to indicate that Italian audiences are growing weary of action blockbusters, given the disap-pointing results here of “Con Air,” “Batman and Robin,” “The Peace-maker,” “Face/Off,” “Speed 2: Cruise Control” and “Air Force One.”

But local exhibs say the undistin-guished quality level of this fall’s major releases has been aggravated to extremes by overcrowding of a market cramped by a growing but still woe-fully inadequate network of around 2,000 screens.

“For the first time this year in Italy, American product was subjected to a process of cannibalization, in which one release ate the other,” says Gian-luigi Della Casa, who runs the national Cinema 5 chain. “A release system like ours cannot support the volume of product we’ve been seeing this year, in which an important new film opened every two weeks.”

“This is a market-driven business that depends on the product available at any given time,” suggests Antonio Maldonado Boschetti, managing director of the newly established Warner Village Cinemas chain of multiplexes. “It can swing from one extreme to the other depending on what’s around.

“But the current change in the mar-ket trend probably has as much to do with promotion and advertising and the support of local distributors as it does with the weakness of this season’s lineup,” he added. “Italy is a huge market that can only get bigger, but the majors need to remain focused on the importance of promotion here.”

Italy rarely sees heavy promo-tional-tour traffic, but during the past year, local distribs have been more active than the U.S. majors in bringing in stars to lend clout to their releases and cater to the ever-increasing media appetite for celebrity coverage.

The Cecchi Gori Group flew in Madonna and Antonio Banderas for “Evita” and Demi Moore for “G.I. Jane,” and is about to welcome Brad Pitt for “Seven Years in Tibet”; Me-dusa brought Jeremy Irons over for the world preem of “Lolita,” and Lucky Red is aiming to usher in Kevin Kline, Tom Selleck and Joan Cusack for the January launch of “In & Out.” Perhaps the majors should be following suit.

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